DimeMag

Let’s Embrace The Rockets Wild Small-Ball Experiment

When the Houston Rockets traded Clint Capela for Robert Covington in a four-team trade late Tuesday night, the expectation was, at some point, they would also find themselves a center on the trade market before Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline.

And then the deadline came and went, and the Rockets were still without a center to play real minutes, as Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein are now the only two nominal centers on the roster and neither play much at all. The result is a small-ball experiment unlike anything the league’s seen in the modern era, a starting lineup with no one taller than 6’6 and, at least given what they showed against the Lakers, no one in the rotation was taller than the just acquired 6’9 Robert Covington.

The response from many to the Rockets taking this approach, particularly with their first game coming against the extremely large Lakers roster, was to laugh. It’s what the Inside the NBA crew did on TNT prior to the game, and the general expectation on social media was that Thursday’s game would provide plenty of joke material — even P.J. Tucker had a laugh about his status as the new starting center on Instagram.

However, despite the jokes and laughter about their lack of size, the result on the court was a fascinating and ultimately effective brand of basketball, resulting in a 121-111 win over the Lakers in Staples Center. The amount of space the Rockets had to work with offensively was almost comical as they quite literally played a five-out offense, with all five players lurking outside the three-point line and allowing Russell Westbrook to dart into the paint with minimal resistance — and one would think this will help James Harden on a better shooting night.

Westbrook looked at home in the chaos that was the Rockets first night of the small-ball experiment, thrilled by all the space he had to work in, scoring 41 points, hauling in eight boards, and dishing out five assists. He looked like the best version of Russ, attacking the rim, pulling up from the midrange when defenders would get too much on their heels, and taking advantage of Houston’s speed advantage by opening things up in transition.

Harden looked less comfortable, and that will be something worth watching going forward. The pace of this new-look Rockets is higher than the methodical, isolation play Harden’s thrived in over the past few years and that will require some adjustment on his part. But with how well Westbrook utilized the open space on offense, it should be similarly available for Harden — albeit, some of his quiet night was due to the Lakers constant doubling, which only further opened things up for Russ and company.

Robert Covington looked at home as well, and showed why he was the player Houston coveted and targeted when they decided to execute this new vision. He had 14 points, eight boards, two blocks, and two steals in his minutes off the bench, as he was assigned with covering LeBron James or Anthony Davis (when LeBron was on the bench) for much of his time on the floor. He was incredibly active, as were all the Rockets, flying around and making the Lakers look uncomfortable on both ends of the court.

The offense was scorching hot from three-point land, going 19-of-42 from deep. Some of that is simply hitting shots and the question of sustainability will always arise with these Rockets, but that is also the entire design of this plan — and that plan created a ton of good, open looks. Harden was a willing passer out of the double and the ball moved crisply to open shooters. The offense had as much ball movement as we’ve seen in awhile, again, partially due to the Lakers plan to swarm Harden the moment he touched the ball, but it was still nice to see.

Defense was always going to be the big question mark and will remain so going forward, but on Thursday it was actually impressive how well they played on that end. They moved extremely well and varied their looks, going from man to zone concepts throughout the game and making sure the Lakers could never fully adapt to what they were doing. There were stretches where L.A. would figure things out and dominate with the pick-and-roll game, with Anthony Davis finishing dunk after dunk, but Houston would adjust and give them a new look to ensure it wasn’t just layup lines for L.A.

If anything, the Lakers forced too much inside, insisting on attacking perceived mismatches in the post, but often not doing so effectively or with much of an actual plan. While undersized with height, the Rockets have some incredibly strong forwards that, even against Anthony Davis are able to force him into tough shots when he gets pushed off of his spot by a bad entry pass. For example, on this play late in the fourth quarter, Tucker’s strength keeps Davis from getting to the rim in the post. When Davis forces up the tough fadeaway, Covington uses his length to help down and get a big block.

The biggest question going forward is whether this will work in the playoffs when teams have scouted it and have a better gameplan for it, because, to be frank, the Lakers plan was pretty poor. They didn’t adjust their defensive approach much to the new look, and got cooked for it, allowing the Rockets to consistently get open looks. Those looks, however, seem fairly sustainable given the two guards Houston has that can break down an opponent and collapse the defense, and then it becomes the whole “make or miss league” thing — which isn’t that much different than other recent Rockets teams. The place where I think the Rockets are going to struggle more come playoff time is on defense when offenses have a plan to attack their various looks.

The Lakers got off their game trying to force things inside and did some incredibly weird stuff that indicated, for the night, the Rockets had broken their brains. A sequence late in the fourth quarter saw a lob thrown to Alex Caruso (and not right at the rim) followed up by a three-point attempt by JaVale McGee with 42 seconds on the clock, neither of which are ideal offensive outcomes. Throughout the game they threw terrible entry passes — an epidemic at all levels of basketball — that contribute to their failures to take advantage of the size mismatch down low. The bigs, including Davis, did a poor job handling fronts, at times getting pushed all the way under the backboard to make it impossible to catch the ball and go straight up with a shot, but passes like this just can’t happen when the big man does get a seal and has a chance for an easy bucket with a decent pass.

The Rockets execution of their plan was highly impressive on defense given the short amount of time they’ve had to really install it, but on the other side, teams will plan ahead better for it as more tape emerges. When the Lakers watch the film from this game they’ll kick themselves, particularly for how they handled running the offense in the non-LeBron minutes — which, admittedly has been an issue all season.

It is here that you wonder if the Rockets will eventually get schemed for and be without a Plan B when teams do figure things out. It’s an understandable concern and one that I can very well see playing out against a few different teams come playoff time in the West. That said, for all the talk about how they’re going to have matchup nightmares defensively, as we saw against a Lakers team that’s been very good defensively, they are going to create miserable matchups of their own. They remove your rim protectors from the paint, and if those guys collapse on drivers they’re leaving two very good corner three-point shooters open. They can get out and run and pretty much anyone that grabs a rebound can start the mini-break, and it is just hard to keep up with them on that end.

Will it work in the playoffs to the tune of a championship? Probably not, but let’s be honest, given how they’d been playing this season, neither was what they were doing. This is, at the very least, something different and probably gives them the best chance to stun a team like the Lakers because they might just be able to have four shooting nights like they had on Thursday, and that could be enough. While there will surely be some disastrous shooting nights that bring out all the jokes, we saw how fun this can be when things are firing on all cylinders. That in and of itself is a reason to embrace it, because it’s at least creative.

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